A few days later, I found myself walking through the Inner Sunset close to dawn on my way to the first meeting of this so-called Association. As I walked, I glanced at the broad, delicate ring around my forearm, wondering about its powers. Since that night when it had pulsed around Peter and Octavia, I had patrolled the city faithfully but with little result. Perhaps I simply hadn’t yet come across any warrior spirits; perhaps Odin was right and there simply weren’t very many left in Midgard. Yet Volund hadn’t said that the bracelet reacted to the dying, only that it reacted to heroes. Surely, among the thousands of people I seemed to have to physically dodge every time I went out on the street, the people crowding streetcars and cafes, the people living under eaves, sleeping in doorways, walking briskly with their black leather satchels, shouting, burping, eating, driving cars, surely among all of this huge variety of people there must have been a hero somewhere?
I tried to remember what Octavia and Peter had been doing when the bracelet reacted. It hadn’t pulsed most of the time I’d been around them, so it must have reacted to some kind of behavior. I could hardly describe either of their reactions that night as heroic: startled maybe, a little fearful, disbelieving perhaps, but not heroic.
Suddenly, a scream sliced through the chilly air. I’d been lost in thought, trusting my admittedly fuzzy inner map of the city, and I’d wandered into a small residential alley. Bursts of garden – lemon trees, small sequoias – peeked over fences that encircled tall, narrow houses with spacious yards. The houses leaned elegantly toward each other, and behind each one I could just distinguish the well-painted, cared-for building in its past. Run down now, but grasping for that former dignity, the houses looked benevolently down over dusty brown yards filled with broken bicycles, old water cisterns, a spare tire or two. If it hadn’t been for the sense of urgency filling my soul in the predawn quiet, it might have made a cozy scene. Instead, the scream ringing in my ears, I found myself tugged past the rusty dumpsters toward a medium-sized, otherwise unremarkable brown house.
My wings spread without thought, and I rose into the air over the houses. Windows had begun to light up all over the block as a second piercing scream bit the air and a huge clang, followed by a silence far eerier for the noises that had preceded it. The back door to the house, leading into the garden, swung open, and a woman staggered out, bleeding heavily from her chest. A frying pan hung loosely from her fingers. She walked a step, two, then fell to her knees, her arms outstretched. The frying pan fell onto the dead grass of the yard with a barely audible thump, and as the man stalked out after the woman, the noise of his heavy breathing, the woman’s gasps, all filled the air like the kind of snow that is almost mist, that swirls thick in all directions and slows down the whole world for its dim brightness.
“I told you you’d never leave me,” said the man in a voice so faint it was almost a whisper. “Didn’t I say I’d kill you first? Why didn’t you listen?”
The woman said nothing. I could see her outline begin to shimmer, and despite myself I realized I wanted desperately to intervene, to reach out and change the events all three of us saw so clearly and inevitably unfolding. Blood streamed from the man’s forehead into his collar, and his pale eyes had almost disappeared under his swollen brow. The woman grasped the frying pan a second time, and as he stepped forward, raising the bloody knife in his hand, she turned as if in slow motion and swung the pan with all her might. It connected with the man’s kneecaps as he descended the final step of that rickety wooden staircase, and he dropped like a stone, wailing a high, thin, note. As if that single blow had taken the last of her strength, the woman, too, toppled onto her hands and knees. Her dark brown hair was damp with sweat and the blood that had soaked her chest and now drenched her hands as she curled herself into a ball, breathing slowly, shallowly, and, far too soon, not breathing at all.
I stood over her and held out my hand. She turned her head and looked up at me. Tears streamed down her face, but her jaw was set and hard. She didn’t get up.
“I’m dead,” she told me. Her voice, quiet but steady, did not break the silence so much as enter and inhabit it, the cold, pre-dawn silence of a terrifying and violent death that had seemed to happen without anyone really noticing, as if she had stumbled out of her house and fallen quietly into a crack, just disappeared like a pool of water in sunlight, with little noise and no fuss. She didn’t even look at the living man who had dragged himself to her side and was now holding her body in his arms, sobbing openly. She looked only at me and stayed curled into herself and entirely still as the man, limping terribly, began to drag her body away behind her through the yard. “He’s killed me. I never really thought he would, you know. Or perhaps I always knew it. It’s hard to say.”
“Gloria Johnston?” I asked her, uncertain because I couldn’t quite find her name in that still, empty face.
“No,” she said, suddenly decisive. “No, not anymore. It’s Gloria Ruiz. That’s the name my parents gave me. My mother’s name.”
I reached down to her, solemn and dignified, as I had been with Rufus and all of the Einherjar I had collected centuries earlier. “Gloria Ruiz, you have died fighting, with courage and strength, as befits a shieldmaiden. My name is Sigrid Spearthrower, and I am honored to witness your final battle. Please allow me to escort you to Valhalla, the afterlife for fallen warriors.”
She frowned for a moment, her eyes far away. Then, finally, she reached up. Our hands met. As we rose into the sky, she kept her eyes on mine until the pale, dusty yard, the limping man, and the dim neighborhood with its blinking lights and distant sirens had vanished in the gloom, and I began to smell the clear, mossy swamp of Valhalla.
When we arrived, Valhalla was just waking up and starting the day. We could hear the distant clamor of the Einherjar feasting on bacon, bread, and beer before a long day of fighting, but few people could be seen out on the marshy fields. Volund was chopping wood in front of his cabin, his muscled arms flexing beautifully as he swung the axe. I turned to Gloria and saw her lift her head, carefully and cautiously surveying the mist rising through the thin trees. Her mouth twisted at the sight of Volund and the sound of his axe slamming through the wood. Her eyebrows rose at the long, glittering hall roofed with shields and fenced by spears and pikes. Still, she didn’t say a word, but seemed to shrink, looking smaller and smaller as she followed me toward the great hall of Valhalla proper.
Until, with a clatter of steel, her blonde braid whipping behind her, Signy strode out of the woods and caught sight of us crossing the field. A look of confusion crossed her face, but she broke into a huge smile as she locked eyes with Gloria, who, startled, began a timid answering smile of her own.
“You’ve returned!” Signy leaped into the air and coasted the final fifty yards between us, landing in a flurry of golden-brown feathers and steel. “Is this what I think? Have you really brought us a shieldmaiden?”
I nodded at her, grinning. Signy had always wanted Valhalla to accept women, but female warriors have traditionally gone to Freya’s realm, Folkvangr. Signy looked as if she were about to take off again with excitement, as if only the clouds could contain her joy at this new development.
She peered into Gloria’s eyes, and seemed to sense automatically that a lighter hand was needed for this particular Einherja. The way she had been standing, her wings still spread behind her, her throwing axe in hand, seemed almost guaranteed to intimidate, and Signy proved equal to that realization, tamping down her excitement, reducing her aggressive demeanor, and visibly shrinking to something closer to Gloria’s height. Her wings folded back behind her. She put out a hand and clasped Gloria gently on the shoulder. “Welcome, shieldmaiden,” she told the frightened woman, and her voice had moved from the eagle screech to a quieter, more melodic pitch, with just a hint of Signy’s usual angry scratchiness. “I can see you have suffered at the hands of men, and that you died without fully realizing your revenge. Your mind is still back there, isn’t it? Still trapped in the violence that formed you. Isn’t it?”
Gloria’s face had become stone. Even the worry lines around her mouth seemed carved and immutable; her dark eyes flint, her disheveled hair offering little softness to counteract the set of her lips. “It wasn’t just him,” she said bleakly. “And now they have all won, the ones who hurt me. He has killed me, you know. I am gone now. I will never be free.” Her lower lip quivered as she spoke, but her eyes remained stubbornly dry. “They taught this to me,” she said. “James did, and the one before him, and my stepfather. They turned me into this person, who can only keep going back to be hurt, who lives in fear. Why? Why would they do that?”
Signy’s entire face darkened with the rage I have seen her battle every day of all the years I have known her; the rage that comes from a lived helplessness, from a life distilled out of terror. I know that rage, too. I could see in Gloria’s sunken eyes and in Signy’s grinding teeth a matching terrified vulnerability, and it made my heart shiver in compassion.
Signy’s voice was rough when she finally spoke. “You have learned more than just pain,” she said. “What is your name?”
“You have learned more than how to be hurt, Gloria Ruiz,” said Signy. “You have learned intimately the possibilities of violence, and that rage inside you has given you power. Your life of fear has taught you to create a well of courage within yourself. You are a weapon, Gloria, with the ability and means to channel that pain and direct it elsewhere. You have been broken and reforged into something stronger than you once were.”
Gloria stared at her. “So what?” She took a shaky breath and continued, “What’s the point of that if I cannot go back and free myself, if I will never receive justice for the crimes that were committed against me?” She stood straight as a sapling reaching for the sun in a wide meadow, with no larger trees to block its shadow and a well of rich earth beneath its roots. She raged, and I could see her draw the rage into herself, valuable as water and soil to a tree, strong as minerals surging into her veins.
Signy smiled a sharp, cruel smile. “If you want justice, you will find a way,” she said. “In the meantime, I will train you for the end of days. You have entered into a battle more dangerous and farther reaching than anything you have known. Does that frighten you?”
Gloria shook her head. “I got no fear left,” she said. “I must have left it behind. I seem to have only anger and grief now.” She closed her eyes.
“You are only the second warrior to enter Valhalla in the past 800 years. We are still learning how the world has changed in our absence, but the training we can give you would be a worthy occupation for a woman as strong and wild as you. We can take your anger and hone it into a guiding force.” She held out her hand to the smaller woman and asked, “Do you want to learn how to fight demons and kill giants? To learn the way of the spear?”
Gloria opened her eyes and stared at Signy. Her voice was barely a whisper, but her back straightened and her fists were clenched. “Yes.”
Signy smiled. “Good.”
I left the two of them to get acquainted and walked over to where Volund had just finished chopping wood. He waved at me, beaming. “Did it help?” He gestured at the arm-ring.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure.” I told him about the bracelet’s reaction to Octavia and Peter, and he looked thoughtful.
“This was just after you startled them by flying? But they thought it was an elaborate trick. Denial is not courage.” He shrugged, his deep voice comfortingly growly. “I am not always sure how my magic will work in practice. We will wait, and find out.”
I nodded and then looked at him again, this time really appreciating the sight of his craggy face, wild red beard, and strong, delicate hands. He saw me looking and winked, adding, “We have some time before today’s battle. Do you want to come to my cabin?”
I grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”
An hour later, in his cabin, I rolled off of Volund and collapsed with my head on his bicep. “Oh, that was good. I missed that.” I ran my hand along his chest and up to his cheek.
He rubbed his cheek on my fingers, then kissed them. “It’s good that you are back.” His arms came back around me, and he drew lazy circles around my belly button.
We had lain there for only a couple of minutes when we heard the clang of iron on wood. “That’s the battle starting!” he raised his head and his eyes sparked with energy. “Are you going to join?”
After hundreds of years of this life I could still feel the thrill of battle in my blood. I wanted to be out there on the field, swinging my shield, blocking and bashing, numb to the exhaustion in my arms as I kept my spear level and prepared to respond, react, defend and attack in an endless, instinctual dance. “Yes!” I propped myself on one elbow and gazed into his eyes, letting him see the bloodlust in my face as I grinned, showing all my teeth. He laughed.
“San Francisco doesn’t have enough fighting for you?”
I shrugged. “It’s not the same at all. Let’s go!” I rolled out of bed and began pulling on my clothes and armor as Volund dragged himself to the edge of his bed to dress. As usual, I wanted to stop and watch the powerful, graceful way Volund swung himself around the room on the bars he’d set up when he built the house. I especially love watching him when he’s nude and doing his morning gymnastics.
Volund is quick, though, and in just a couple of minutes we were both dressed and he was leading the way in his combat chair. I savored the marshy air of the field as we marched through the trees toward the sounds of battle. I could already smell blood. As we approached, I spread my wings and launched myself into the fray.
For the next several hours, I lost myself in the grinding exhilaration of combat. All around me soldiers clashed blades and shields. From the corner of my eye, I saw Signy with Gloria in tow. Together they fought their way through the field toward me, their progress punctuated by gasps and shouts as the warriors of Valhalla realized they were looking at the first female Einherja in Valhalla. Gloria seemed too busy to fully notice the attention. Once the warriors got over their shock, they all wanted to face the new shieldmaiden in battle. They flocked to her corner of the battlefield, and she and Signy had to constantly fend off their attacks.
I retreated for a moment to watch the two of them from the edge of the field. Gloria’s face, at first pinched and cautious, began to show flickers of amazement as she hacked and blocked at Signy’s side. I knew how she felt, remembered the thrill of learning my own capacity for violence. After enough training, she would lose herself in it and let the bloodlust and muscle memory take over.
Signy took a moment to wave at me as I fought my way over to them. “Get out of here!” She shouted at me. “What if you get sent back to Midgard and you’re injured?”
I laughed as I swung. “Who cares? I’ll heal!”
Signy and I fought back-to-back with Gloria between us. The faces around me blurred as my spear slashed and blocked. A little while later, Signy tapped my arm and guided the three of us out of the main area of combat. We stopped under a nearby tree, gasping for breath.
“You two look good out there,” I told them. “How was it?”
Gloria smiled hesitantly. She was soaked in blood, but none of it appeared to be hers. “Cathartic. That’s the word I’m looking for. I feel strong.” She hefted her axe and glanced at Signy. “Can you teach me some of those things you were doing? Like when that guy came up behind you and you brained him with your shield? I had no idea you could attack with a shield.”
Signy grinned. “That’s one of my favorites.” She glanced around. Bodies littered the field. The early afternoon sun broke through the clouds occasionally to reflect on filthy armor. I knew exactly which moments the sun would come out: these moments were the same every day. A sizable number of Einherjar continued to hack away at each other over the bodies of their fallen comrades. Others had retreated to the trees to rest or refresh themselves, while still others had gathered into groups to share their knowledge.
I noticed Rufus standing at the center of one of these groups, gesturing to at least 30 warriors. Curious, I nudged Signy. “Do you see that group over there? Is that Rufus talking?”
Signy nodded. “He has been teaching a kind of mind-magic in which he disassociates himself from pain. He can withstand terrible injuries. I’ve never seen anyone with his type of endurance who wasn’t a berserker.”
My very first modern Einherja was already contributing knowledge to Odin’s host. I beamed with pride, my tired wings expanding.
Signy slung a casual arm around my shoulder. “Let’s get a drink before you leave.” She tilted her head toward the field, where a few warriors had begun to march toward us. “We can avoid the whole introduction for a bit. Gloria?” Gloria nodded, carefully buckling her axe into her belt. She followed us to the hall, where Olrun and Iarni were staring into a bowl.
“They’re scrying,” Signy explained to Gloria. “You can watch if you’re careful not to disturb them.” The two of us sat back with our mead as Gloria approached the seers.
“Did you wonder, when you found Gloria, if you would end up in Folkvangr?” Signy asked.
I hesitated. “I wondered when I first left if I would run into a shieldmaiden and find Folkvangr. When I found Gloria, though, I just came here instinctively. I didn’t think about it at all. I don’t think the path to Freya’s hall is open to me.”
Signy and I looked at each other for a long moment. At last she whispered, “I wonder what happened to them. And I wonder why, in all these years, I never thought about it before. Thrudh is over there. So are Eir the Healer and Olrun’s two sisters.”
Suddenly, I remembered Rota, the Folkvangr Valkyrie I had once befriended. How long had it been since I’d thought of her? My mind felt thick and full of mist. My mother had been a warrior; my mother had died a noble death and gone to Folkvangr. I stared back for a moment, stricken. My voice was barely audible. “Signy…”
Signy reached out and gently touched my cheek. Her green eyes burned into mine. “I think we’re under a spell,” she whispered.
I nodded. “It has to be a part of the Break.”
She raised her eyebrows, perplexed. “The Break?”
“The stasis, you know, when time stopped. When we broke off from the world tree. That’s what I’ve been calling it. As far as we know, time only stopped here. But if I didn’t go to Folkvangr, maybe it’s been cut off from the worlds, too.”
Signy shrugged. “I don’t think time actually stopped, Sigrid. There just weren’t any warriors on Midgard any more. Now that you’re finding warriors again and everything will go back to normal.”
I stared at her, appalled. “Normal? If this were normal, I would have collected souls that died in a real battle. Odin would have sent me to a war zone, not a city full of lightning-magic and smoke! If this were normal, I would have taken Gloria to Folkvangr.”
She shook her head uncomfortably, her wings drooping. Then she covered her face with her hands. “You’re right,” she whispered, “but I don’t want to believe you. My head feels like it’s being hammered by Thor himself. We need to stop talking about this.”
Groups of Einherjar had begun clattering through the main doors as we spoke. Two of them peered at us as they set the huge hog on the spit. Three others had been busy collecting pitchers of ale and setting them onto tables. Their task finished, they headed toward us, staring openly as Olrun and Iarni cleared their bowl and Gloria brought her mead to us.
“We’ll join you,” announced Ori as he led his two companions to our table. He bowed to Gloria and declared, “I am Ori Ironhelm and these two are Thorstein the Red and Bjorn the Tradesman.”
Gloria stood and bowed in return. “Gloria the Bloody,” she said, her voice harsh, with a crackle that set my teeth on edge. Signy and I looked at each other, awed, and I suddenly knew that if Gloria were a Valkyrie, her wings would be the glossy greenish-black of a carrion crow.
For the next few hours, men crowded around our table introducing themselves to Gloria. They offered everything from horns of mead to battle-axe tips to performances of Skaldic poetry. Gloria declined to explain her death or her choice of name. However, she seemed to enjoy hearing accounts of betrayal, lost battles, and revenge.
As I watched her preside over the crowd, I suddenly remembered where I’d been going when I found the shieldmaiden. I found my attention straying to my missed meeting in San Francisco and the magical people I had planned to see. Because of this, I actually felt relieved when I noticed the hall begin to fade around me and the mead vanish from my hand. I found myself drifting above the Pacific Ocean once again. This time, I refused to waste a moment. Flying low and fast, I headed straight for the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals.